VOL. 132 | NO. 145 | Monday, July 24, 2017
Revival of Ranked Choice Voting Marks Phillips’ Attention to Detail
By Bill Dries
Voter poll activity at Mississippi Blvd church. (Daily News File/Andrew j. Brieg)
The use of Ranked Choice Voting or instant-runoff voting in Memphis elections was a moot point even before Memphis voters approved it in 2008 in a city charter amendment.
The Shelby County Election Commission had concluded before the charter referendum that its voting systems couldn’t accommodate a method of voting that ranked candidates in a single race by a voter’s preference, instead of a voter picking one and only one candidate.
There were also some different descriptions of how RCV or IRV would work, including the idea that voters would number their choices.
Nine years later, a relatively new county elections administrator has contradicted that saying it is possible with the existing touch-screen voting machines and could start with the 2019 Memphis elections depending on policy and procedural decisions still to be made by others.
Linda Phillips, who became elections administrator in June 2016, is an admitted “technical geek” who came to Memphis from running elections in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and has a broad knowledge of evolving election technology.
For about a year she has immersed herself in Tennessee election law, too, and made changes accordingly.
The election commission website, www.shelbyvote.com, now shows there are 507,846 voters on the rolls in Shelby County. That’s compared to about 570,000 earlier this year. The dramatic drop was one of the rallying points by state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis and other Democrats to organize the new Tennessee Voter Project political action committee.
Phillips said of the 65,261 inactive voters, 24,532 were recently purged from the county voter rolls after the election commission went through the set of notifications required.
“No, we really didn’t just have 40,000 voters disappear,” she told election commissioners of the remaining inactive voters still on the rolls and still able to vote once they verify their addresses.
Phillips said state law requires election commissions to show a vote count that is active voters only. The inactive voter total is still on the election commission website, “but you really have to dig for it,” Phillips said.
“I thought it was kind of a dumb distinction,” she added. “That section of the code primarily impacts how much equipment that you can buy or how much you deploy on election day. Statistically speaking, an inactive voter is not as likely to vote. Only a very few number of them vote. And that impacts us when we go to buy equipment.”
But, Phillips also pointed out that the number of inactive voters is combined with the active voters when it comes to determining how many signatures are needed on a petition to put a referendum on the ballot.
“I don’t make this stuff up, really,” she said.
With state Sen. Mark Norris’ nomination to be a federal judge not yet in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Phillips is already preparing for a vacant Senate seat in his district. She told the election commission there will have to be a special election if Norris is confirmed and leaves his Senate seat before Nov. 6. If it’s after that, the race goes on the 2018 ballot.
When it comes to IRV and RCV, Phillips uses the term Ranked Choice Voting but describes a general process that the proponents of it in 2008 called Instant Runoff Voting. But she says the vote count would not be instant and would likely take several days.
Phillips outlined the view of an election ballot that is three columns horizontally, each with the same list of candidates for the same city council seat. The first column would be voters’ first choice, the second column their second choice and third column, their third preference.
With that configuration, she says it would be possible to have RCV in the 2019 city council races on touch-screen machines. And under terms of the 2008 charter amendment, the method is to be used in the next city election in which it is judged practicable.
The question, and one of several key decisions to be made, is how to count the votes.
Manual data entry would require a state certification of the software used to count votes that way, or it could be done by hand counting the ballots. Phillips says the hand counting would be “fast or faster than data entry … and more transparent.”
So, with some policy decisions by the election commission and city leaders, this could be on the ballot in 2019. And there is even a possibility it could apply to all council races, not just the seven single-member council districts.
There will be an internal mock election using the RCV method later this year to test out counting and other procedures.
The earliest election that new voting machines would be in place here would be the 2022 midterm elections, with those machines bought in 2021.
City council members will likely want to everything, including the basic premise of the 2008 charter amendment.
Two years after another of those charter amendments was in place, the council undid it. That amendment had moved city elections to even-year cycles and staggered city council terms so that six seats are on the ballot in one even-year cycle and the other seven seats two years later.
Council members led by then-council member Jim Strickland put a repeal of that amendment on the 2010 ballot and the same voters who approved the change repealed it just a year before the transition.
The amendment change approved in 2008 was supported by 72 percent of voters. Two years later, 74.8 percent of voters chose to repeal it.
It’s not the only example of a charter amendment specifically undoing an earlier charter amendment either.
There have been three city charter amendments in the last 13 years on setting different residency requirements for city government employees, starting with a 2004 amendment approved by voters requiring city employees to live in the city. The current requirement is that they live within Shelby County.